American politics is full contact sport for many. This has especially been true since the death of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War era. We had LBJ, Watergate, Carter’s failed presidency, Iran-Contra, “no new taxes,” the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky impeachment episode, the war in Iraq on grounds that were not really there and now the health care debate. In every case, at least since JFK’s death, we have moved, so it seems, further and further toward bitter, acrimonious partisanship.
What particularly fascinates me, since I am at times a political junkie, is that the fastest growing political category is not Democrat or Republican. It is independent. The tea party movement reflects this as do libertarian rumblings, left and right. And if this president continues his course of action in Iran and Afghanistan he is likely to hear from the left pretty powerfully in coming days.
Independents appear to be neither far right nor far left. Sometimes commentators refer to America as a center-right country. I think that is true except for the 18-35 generation, which may move that way over the next decade based on some polls I’ve seen. Only time will tell. One thing is clear, the two major parties do not control the voters in any sense of the word. 42% of the electorate is independent according to a new CBS/New York Times poll. That is about 70 million people.
Washington Post syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker calls this America’s “new homeless class, people who are equally disgusted with both traditional parties and the special interests that control them. They’re all ages, sexes, races and ethnicities, though younger Americans are crowding the front rows.” Of those adults born since 1977, which is the year my youngest child was born, 44% identify themselves as independent.
America may look like it is a battle between the hard right and the hard left if you watch MSNBC and Fox. But this is simply not the case. We are, says Parker, “A vast middle, slightly right-of-center nation.” How did we get to this place? Why do so many feel so shut out by the parties and their politics? (In fairness I number myself in this independent middle!)
Those in the middle are often fiscally conservative and instinctively feel we are in financial danger. They know spending needs to stop but they do not all agree on where and how. Some of these middle folks were alienated by the Bush administration, which did serious harm to the national well-being by spending. Yet they also see the new administration spending more in their first year than Bush did in more years, some say six.
Consider the problem of all the wing-nut nonsense we now hear on a daily basis. The shrill voice gets attention thus the Glenn Beck phenomenon. His entire public persona is built on polarizing people by denouncing and demonizing his opponents.
Many think these independents have no convictions. I do not find this to be true at all. The majority of them are fiscally responsible and a small majority of them are even pro-life, or at least want to restrain government sponsored abortion. John McCain pointed out in the last election that for every Pat Robertson in the GOP there is an Al Sharpton in the Democratic Party.
John Avlon, in his intriguing book Wingnuts, says these polarizing people have networks and web sites but the centrists still have the numbers.
The problem here is nothing more than old fashioned demagoguery. Some want to demonize dissent and cultivate rage. This will never win elections or benefit America. America’s first popularly elected female senator was Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith. She served in my childhood. It was Smith who faced down Senator Joseph McCarthy, a senator in her own party, and promoted a “Declaration of Conscience” aimed at hate and character assassination. In 1970 Smith wrote these words, words that still move me as an independent who would like to see a different conversation in America: “It is time that the great center of our people, those who reject the violence and unreasonableness of both the extreme right and the extreme left . . . shed their intimidated silence and declared their conscience.”
I can sign up for that approach. This is why I openly signed a declaration a few weeks against Glenn Beck for his recent attacks upon Christians that he disagreed with regarding the health care debate. While I deeply question this flawed piece of legislation I will not move to the far rhetorical right in my response. I believe this is why we have elections and I believe this is why Christians, as salt and light, serve the public well-being much better by not using the rhetorical devices of either extreme, regardless of how you feel about the new law. Having lived for more than six decades I can tell you that these things have their own way of sorting themselves out over time. Reagan followed Carter and Clinton followed Bush and Obama followed the second Bush. Anyone see the middle’s role in these changes?